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The Amistad Case

United States v. Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, was a United States Supreme Court case resulting from the rebellion of Africans on board the Spanish schooner La Amistad in 1839. The rebellion broke out when the schooner, traveling along the coast of Cuba, was taken over by a group of captives who had earlier been kidnapped in Africa and illegally sold into slavery.

Chronology of Events

February 1839
Portuguese slave hunters abduct a large group of Africans in Sierra Leone and ship them to Havana, Cuba, in violation of several international treaties.

June 28, 1839
The Amistad, carrying 53 of the Africans in its cargo hold, departs Havana for Guanaja, an island off the coast of Honduras. In addition to captain Ramón Ferrer, the ship is manned by José Ruiz, Pedro Montes, a cook, an African cabin boy, and two other crewmen.

July 2, 1839
The Africans manage to free themselves from the cargo hold and seize the ship, killing Ferrer and the cook in the process; the cabin boy was spared and two crewmen escaped by lifeboat. Using the cabin boy as an interpreter, the Africans agree to let Ruiz and Mendes live, provided they sail the ship back to Africa.

taking over the Amistad
taking over the Amistad

Over the next month and a half, Mendes steers the ship eastward by day but then turns back toward the northwest at night, essentially paralleling the east coast of the United States.

August 26, 1839
The Amistad drops anchor off Long Island so some of the Africans can go ashore to procure water and provisions. Sea captains
Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham were shooting birds when they came across the shore party. The Africans pointed to the Amistad laying at anchor off-shore and told the men, through sign language, that there were two great chests of gold aboard that they would willingly give anyone who supplied them with provisions and helped them get back to Africa. Green and Fordham agree, but are intercepted by the U.S. cutter Washington, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney, before they can reach the Amistad. Upon reaching the Amistad, Gedney is met by Ruiz and Mendes, who tell him how the Africans had killed the ship's captain and cook, seized the ship, and taken them prisoner. Gedney then orders that the Africans be held below decks while he tows the Amistad to New London, Connecticut, where the fate of the ship and its cargo, including the Africans, could be decided.

August 29, 1839
U.S. Attorney for Connecticut William S. Holabird holds a judicial hearing aboard the Washington to determine if a crime had been committed, who had committed it, or whether U. S. courts even had jurisdiction. There was also the matter of salvage rights, which were claimed by both Gedney and the Washington crew and Green and Fordham. The Amistad's cargo of wine, saddles, gold, and silk was worth an estimated $40,000 in 1839 dollars, and the slaves had a market value of at least half that much. The hearing is presided over by Andrew T. Judson, District Judge for Connecticut, who determines that there is enough evidence to send the case to the U.S. Circuit Court. He orders that the Africans be held in the county jail at New Haven in the meantime.

The story of the Amistad and the Africans had by now become national news, and as many as 5,000 people come to New Haven every day just to see the Africans. Most of them are just curiosity seekers, but a few are abolitionists who see the Amistad case as a way to publicize the horrors of slavery. One of them, Lewis Tappan, forms the Friends of Amistad Africans Committee, which raises money to hire noted attorney Roger Baldwin to act as legal counsel for the Africans. Spain, meanwhile, pressures the United States to return the schooner to its Cuban owners, concede that the U. S. courts have no jurisdiction over Spanish subjects, and return the Africans to Havana. Anxious to comply with the Spanish demands, President Martin Van Buren and District Attorney Holabird craft legal arguments they hope will produce the results sought by Spain.

September 14, 1839
U.S. Circuit Court Judge Smith Thompson opens court proceedings in Hartford, Connecticut. After three days of testimony, he rules that because the alleged mutiny and murders took place in international waters and did not involve U.S. citizens, the United States did not have jurisdiction to consider the criminal charges. He then refers the civil case regarding salvage rights and the fate of the Africans to the U.S. District Court; meanwhile, the Africans are to remain in custody.

While the country waits for the civil trial to begin, Yale professor Josiah Gibbs is able to determine that the detained Africans speak Mende, a language native to Sierra Leone. He subsequently finds James Covey, a Black dockworker who also speaks Mende through whom the Africans relate the story of their capture in Sierra Leone, their journey to Cuba and subsequent sale, and of why and how they took over the Amistad.

November 19, 1839
U.S. District Court Judge Andrew T. Judson hears two days of testimony and then adjourns the case.

January 8, 1840
The civil trial begins in New Haven. Judson hears from many witnesses supporting the Africans' claim that they had been illegally taken from Africa and were therefore property of no one, while Holabird argues that the Africans should be returned to Spain for trial related to the capture of the Amistad.

Mendes pointing out the leader of the Amistad mutiny for the court
Mendes pointing out the leader of the Amistad mutiny for the court

January 13, 1840
Judson rules that the Africans had been "born free" and kidnapped in violation of international law, and that they mutinied in order to regain their lawful freedom. He further orders that the Africans be turned over to the President for return to Africa. The issue of who had the rights to the rest of the Amistad's cargo is apparently not addressed.

September 1840
U.S. Circuit Court Judge Smith Thompson denies the Van Buren Administration's appeal of Judson's decision. The Administration takes its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

With the ultimate fate of the Africans still uncertain, Tappan convinces former President John Quincy Adams to join Baldwin as counsel for the Africans before the Supreme Court.

February 22-24, 1841
The Supreme Court hears arguments from U.S. Attorney General Henry Gilpin, Roger Baldwin, and John Quincy Adams.

March 9, 1841
Justice Joseph Story, speaking for the Supreme Court, rules that the Africans were "kidnapped Africans, who by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom." They are, therefore, entitled to decide for themselves where they wish to spend the rest of their lives.

Having finally gained their freedom, the Africans make it clear that they wish to return to their homeland. A group of missionaries raises money to both take the Africans back to Sierra Leone and to establish a mission there so that the former captives and their fellow tribesmen could be converted to Christianity.

November 1841
The 35 surviving Africans (many of the original 53 had died before the Amistad's capture by the Washington, and a few more died before the final Supreme Court decision was handed down) and 4 missionaries board the Gentleman and set sail for Sierra Leone. The missionaries succeeded in the establishment of a mission there, but the mission itself was never very successful in converting the locals.

Famous American Trials

President Martin Van Buren
John Quincy Adams

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The Robinson Library >> Slavery in the United States

This page was last updated on July 02, 2018.